I arrived in Berlin Hauptbahnhof in the afternoon on a hot August day, backpack bulging with a gleam in my eye. I had to navigate the maze of train platforms and escalators, but at least I could read enough German to get by!
My wi-fi was spotty but I managed to use Google maps to direct me to a train that would get me close to my hostel. I had to ride the S-bahn, and to do that I had to buy a ticket and then get it punched by a machine. All the guidebooks had warned me in explicit terms to absolutely punch my ticket before boarding or risk getting fined or arrested.
However, the ticket puncher didn’t do anything when I pushed my ticket inside, and I wondered if I was just an ignorant tourist, so I got in line for the train but saw other (clearly local Germans) also having trouble with it, so I zipped around the platform in search of another machine. Luckily, I found one that worked and didn’t have to feel like a fugitive when my train finally arrived.
After a few weeks of solo travel, I felt pretty cool and collected on my way to the hostel. I’d successfully checked into four hostels at that point and knew the drill. I exited the long tunnel at Warschauer Straße Station and was immediately immersed in the vibe of Berlin, with all its graffiti and colorful people. The hostel I stayed at, Plus Berlin, was kind of hidden in a brick building and by the time I found it, I was ready to put my backpack down and relax.
I got up to the desk and told the guy behind the counter my last name, because every time I’d checked in before, they’d always asked me for it. But this guy gave me a confused look and said, “Yeah, and?” I was really thrown. I told him I was there to check-in and he said, “I know, I was just messing with you. People always come in and just tell me their names and it gets annoying.” He laughed at his own joke while I stood there, tired and sweaty, and finally let me put my backpack into the storage room, since my room wasn’t ready yet. I grabbed a bottle of water and used the wi-fi to plan my afternoon, but left the hostel kind of annoyed.
Curry wurst was high on my agenda, so the first thing I did was go in search of some. I didn’t really use my guidebook for this – it was exhausting trying to find an exact address on an empty stomach in the heat, so I just walked around until I found a place that served my wurst. I also got some fritz-limo, which is a fizzy German drink that kind of tastes like lemonade. The curry wurst wasn’t bad, but the consistency wasn’t what I expected. It was really similar to Korean sausage – kind of soft and smooth.
Then I went to Museum island and got in line for the Pergamon Museum, which I’d read good things about. The line was long and I waited at least 40 minutes to get in, and the ticket was €12 or so, but once I was inside, I realized that German buildings are not blessed with air conditioning. It was warm and stuffy inside and the rooms were crowded and noisy. The audioguide headphones were uncomfortable and the narrator droned a lot – making it hard to pay attention. I got some pictures of stuff and even asked a group of Japanese ladies to take my picture in front of a huge mosaic, and it was fun talking to them for a bit.
However, I did not have a great time inside the museum. I blazed through a few rooms but once I learned that a) a lot of the things in the museum were away for renovation, including the main Pergamon Alter, and b) many things were just copies or replicas of things I’d seen for free in the British Museum, I left. I felt like I’d wasted a lot of time and money, but I was feeling nauseous, so I knew I had to get out into the fresh air.
I went to a nearby supermarket to buy water and some fresh fruit, which I ate outside. I just needed to relax and get my bearings a little bit. I checked my guidebooks for some other things to do, but I just wasn’t feeling up to much. I got back on a train and went back to the hostel. I don’t really even remember what I did for dinner – I think I just ate snacks and relaxed in bed.
The next morning was the highlight of my Berlin trip – the Fat Tire Bike Tour! I was so excited for it that I got up super early and went to a cafe in the station for a pastry and some hot chocolate. I enjoyed my breakfast on a bench near the meeting place for the tour and then saw some people gathering nearby so I went over and told them my name. We had a quick orientation and then went to choose our bikes and test them out. We also had a photographer who came along to take promotional photos for the website! I actually ran into him the next day, but I’ll talk about that later.
Riding bikes around Berlin was great – the wind on my face felt so good and kept it from being too hot, and the tour guide was super cool and informative. She’d have us stop before we got to places like Checkpoint Charlie or Hitler’s Bunker or the Berlin Wall and she’d explain the history and significance of each site. This was extra special to me because my parents lived in Germany when the wall was still up and they’ve told me about the time they passed through the border right before the wall fell. It was surreal being in the place I’d heard about for so many years.
We visited Bebelplatz, where the Nazis burned 20,000-odd books. There’s a memorial there in the form of empty bookshelves underfoot, representing the space the books could have taken up. Then we saw it: the Berlin Wall. We also saw one of the last remaining (if not THE last) sniper towers guarding the wall. Then we went to the famous Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe – the 2,000+ concrete slabs of differing heights that is left up to interpretation.
After that, we went to the Brandenburg Gate in Pariser Platz. We also rode our bikes through the Tiergarten, a lush and beautiful park that had sprinklers going, so we often got sprayed with cool mist and it felt amazing. We stopped for lunch at a Biergarten and I ate schnitzel, my absolute favorite, and some refreshing Spezi, which is kind of like a hybrid of coke and orange juice. It was fun talking to the other tour members and the guide more as we relaxed in a shady area eating our food.
We biked back through the Tiergarten and saw some nude sunbathers, which our guide assured us was normal. As someone who lives in Asia and has gone to many public bathhouses, I wasn’t as shocked as some of the other American tourists. Then we got a view of the Reichstag and learned the history of the building, how it was set on fire in 1933. That incident actually sparked (pun intended) a lot of the Nazi movement, because it was that event that led to Hitler evoking the right to lock people away for their beliefs, as the one accused of setting the fire was a supposed communist.
Towards the end of the tour, we cycled around Museum Island and by this point I was so sweaty and hot that I ran through a nearby fountain some kids were playing in. A mom and daughter in the group were planning to go to the DDR Museum after the tour, so we went together and it was really interesting. It had a ton of information and artifacts from East Berlin and East Germany and I learned a lot in there.
After that, I went to the Topography of Terror, a free museum that recounts the events leading up to WWII. I had a very informative and entertaining day, so I treated myself to some pizza near my hostel. It was kind of awkward being the only person who was sitting alone, and I kind of had to guess what I was ordering because the staff didn’t really speak English and my German skills didn’t help me in the Italian restaurant. Then I got some vegan ice cream nearby, and it was delicious!
The next day, I left Berlin for a city filled with pretty buildings, but I’ll cover that in it’s own post.
To be continued…